Deep within the chambers of Cody’s Books in Berkeley (usually around lunchtime), mild-mannered sales director Ira Steingroot assumes the persona of his alter-ego: Moishe the Mensch — Yiddish Superhero.
Moishe dispatches villains with an array of moves that would make Muhammad Ali’s poetry seem like bad haiku.
Potch!! Zetz!! Frosk!! Klop!! Shlug!!
Then comes the coup de grace. After giving the shmegegge a swift kick in the tuchis, Moishe hurls his signature insult.
“Zol dir vaksen tzibbeles fun pupik! — Onions should grow from your navel!”
“Yiddish is a language of earthiness and humor, but also of pathos and heartbreak.” said Steingroot, who is Cody’s Judaica buyer, ”
He should know. He recently designed a deck of “Yiddish Knowledge Cards.” The cards, which sell for $9.95, run the gamut from religious sayings to quite a few expressions concerning the less pristine functions of the human body.
Although the set of 48 cards offers no exploits of Moishe the Mensch, it does give a brief history of the Yiddish language and details its cultural significance to the Jews.
For those people who enjoy a stiff drink every now and again, for example, there is a veritable tavern of Yiddish lore. One card starts with the shikker (drunk), who had perhaps enjoyed too many shnaps (Eastern European whiskey) on the way to becoming farshnoshket (really sloshed).
For those more historically inclined, the cards serve up the Ashkenazi version of the Hatfields and McCoys. The rift occurred between the Litvaks of Lithuania, who put a supreme value on study and logic, and the Galitzianers of Poland, who focused more on prayer and emotions.
Since the Litvaks viewed the Galitzianers as “irrational and uneducated” and the Galitzianers viewed the Litvaks as “cold fish,” the card states that it was impossible for a Litvak to be married to a Galitzianer.
Steingroot himself grew up in a haimish town — Toledo, Ohio — a town that he compares to Anatevka of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame.
“Toledo was this little town with an intense core of Jewish culture,” he said, “and I grew up in a pretty observant household. Judaism was an essential part of what we did.”
Yiddish was the second tongue of the Steingroot household, where it was spoken as code language between the parents. “But we could understand the gist of it,” Steingroot recalled with a laugh.
One of the main reasons for the Yiddish language’s survival (however tenuous it may be), is its everyday applicability, according to Steingroot.
“People like shmendricks and shlubs still exist,” Steingroot said. “You encounter these people every day, and English just isn’t satisfactory in explaining them.”
Additionally, Steingroot said the Yiddish language offers a deep insight into the human psyche. “Yiddish is an excellent tool for delineating personality types.”
Only Yiddish, he notes, differentiates between a shlemiel (a klutz) and a shlemazl (an unlucky man). Or a graub (a coarse figure) and a shlub (a less-offensive slob).
The zenith of the Yiddish language, according to Steingroot, was between 1850 and 1940 when there were roughly 11 million Jews throughout Europe who spoke it as their primary language.
“The Holocaust obviously wiped out a large part of the Yiddish culture. But it was further damaged when it became a sort of pariah language in Israel,” he said.
“Thank God for the state of Israel. But Yiddish was unfortunately seen as a product of Germany, and it just wasn’t acceptable to speak it. Now I think it’s creeping back into the culture, but a lot has been lost.”
A longtime jazz aficionado, Steingroot finds many parallels between the rise and decline of Yiddish and what has been referred to as the only true American art form.
“When I was in high school, I saw a lot of the big-name jazz cats,” Steingroot reminisced. “Guys like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, the Jazz Messengers…
“Jazz has a spirituality to it, an earthiness and communal sensibility that you can also see in the Yiddish culture.”
Noting that black and Jewish musicians often occupied prominent positions together in the heyday of jazz music from the mid-1940s to 1960s, Steingroot said that both groups had a common history of oppression that shaped their cultures.
“In Europe, Jews were killed on the basis of religion, not race,” Steingroot said. “But the genius of America’s founding fathers was to prohibit religious discrimination, so anti-Semitism in America has been very light in comparison to Europe.
“Unfortunately, the founding fathers offered no such protections against racial bias, which is why the African-American people have suffered so much.”
Noting that Yiddish is still spoken in small pockets throughout the world and that there’s been a resurgence of klezmer, Steingroot still sounds a cautionary note.
“Unfortunately, I think I lived through the death of jazz,” said Steingroot. “It’s still played, but it’ll probably never reach the level of popularity it had 40 years ago.
“I’m afraid the same thing has happened to Yiddish. This is a language and culture we’ll lose forever if we’re not careful.”